Musical Life in Holmes County, Ohio from 1917-1960
A Study of Three Important Ensembles
By Dr. Amy Gerber Doerfler
LOCATED IN Northeastern Ohio, Holmes County is a region with an interesting musical history. In the first half of the twentieth century, the community was entertained by three main groups of musicians. Beginning in 1917, the Willie Green Band, made up of over fifty local performers, orchestrated their own renditions of classical and popular band pieces, eventually traveling throughout Ohio. They also performed as The Willie Green Rube Band, offering various vaudeville acts. Another local group was the Harry Weiss Orchestra, formed in the mid-1920s by Holmes County sheriff, Harry Weiss. The band performed popular music of the 1920s and 1930s at grange halls and dances in Holmes County and mainly consisted of members of the Weiss family. The third important musical group for the county during this time was the “Pop” Farver Orchestra. The Farver family, led by Warner E. “Pop” Farver, was known for its many polkas and waltzes. The group was in demand for many local dances, and played throughout Holmes, Wayne, Tuscarawas, Stark, and Coshocton counties.In addition, Pop Farver wrote many original folk tunes that the family performed. Through their light-hearted entertainment, these three musical groups helped to enrich the lives of citizens belonging to a hard-working, farming community well into the middle of the twentieth century.
The Willie Green Band’s existence arose out of the tradition that began after the Civil War in which communities developed brass bands formed by ex-soldiers who had been in fife and drum corps. Formed by Cal Beatty and Floyd Reese, the Willie Green Band was active for more than thirty years in the first half of the twentieth century. They were headquartered in Millersburg, (which is the county seat of Holmes County), but they performed throughout the state. Each of the fifty musicians doubled on anywhere from two to five instruments, and the band maintained a wide repertoire of music. Their slogan was “Music For All Occasions,” and the members had five complete changes of uniform, one appropriate for any venue. The Willie Green Band was noted for its traditional band music as well as its programs of popular music. The band advertised itself as appearing, “either in Concert band, Rube band, Dance or Concert Orchestra.”
When performing as the “Hicktown Rube band,” the Willie Green members developed specific characters that their audiences expected to see. An early advertisement for the band describes performer Cal Beatty as “Grandpop Overpeck, direct from Possum Hollow…Drummer and Clog Dancer, doubling several different instruments.” Performer Owen Wengerd played “the title role of Professor Schultz, Banjos, Ukelele, Vocalist and Entertainer.” Myron Yakley was “Isaac Fizzlebaum. Accordion Soloist of both popular and classical music.” The pamphlet goes on to describe “Luther Wyler, Trombone Soloist of merit—black face comedian—playing blue or sweet.”The group had several specialty acts: a dog impersonator, accordion and banjo virtuosos, clog dancers, a vocal soloist, a black face comedian and a female impersonator.
The caricatures that the Wille Green Band used are disturbing today, though this type of entertainment was immensely popular not just in Holmes County at the time. The origins of the blackface comedian character found in the band began with blackface minstrel shows, which took shape in the 1820s. Performers like Thomas Dartmouth Rice (1808-1860) blackened their faces with burnt cork and created costumes to represent stereotypical African Americans: Jim Crow was a ridiculous, uncouth character in shabby rags, supposedly representing the rural black man. On the other hand, Zip Coon caricatured an urban, pretentious “dandy” dressed in a coat and gloves. When speaking of minstrelsy, scholar William Osborne says, “Ohio audiences devoured the product voraciously and several Ohioans played crucial roles in creating and marketing the phenomenon.” Performers spoke in crude dialects, played banjo and fiddle music, danced and used ugly, racist humor. According to Osborne, by the 1920s, the era of the minstrel show began to wind down. It is quite likely, though, that this type of entertainment was slower to lose its popularity in rural areas—the Willie Green band is evidence of this. In fact, Osborne claims that “vestiges of the practice survive in several Ohio communities,” and goes on to give a few examples of small towns that still support the tradition.
It is interesting to note, however, that, just as blackface minstrelsy had stereotypical African-American characters, the Willie Green Band posed similar caricatures of white Americans. The character Grandpop Overpeck (“direct from Possum Hollow”) is cast against Professor Schultz, similar to the “rural versus urban” dichotomy found in blackface minstrelsy. The band also caricatured women by including a man who posed as a woman in the comedic routine.
In spite of its distasteful caricatures that were typical of many bands in America at the time, the Willie Green Band was known for its organization and preparedness, both in its music and its management. Members were loyal, funding the organization through their playing while rarely (if ever) being compensated monetarily. They were a success throughout Ohio, not only in Holmes County, though it is there that they are perhaps most ardently remembered.
A second influential musical group in Holmes County was the Harry Weiss Orchestra. Harry R. Weiss started the ensemble in the mid-1920s. Members of the community as well as four of his seven children played in the band. The instrumentation included a fiddle, a trumpet, two saxophones, an accordion, a banjo, piano and drums. They played popular music of the day, and were considered an essential element to any Holmes County social event in the 1930s through early 1960s.
The following picture was taken in 1947 of the Weiss Orchestra.
On the far left, a friend of the family, Earl Marchand, is seated at the drums. The remaining players include: Bill Weiss (trumpet), Murray Gerber (accordion), Darryl Weiss (saxophone), Junior Weiss (saxophone), Harry Weiss (fiddle and banjo) and Evelyn Weiss Gerber (piano). This picture was taken at a time when the band was becoming well-established: sons Bill, Darryl, and Junior were home from fighting in World War II and Murray had recently joined the band after marrying Evelyn. Murray helped strengthen the band by becoming its vocalist. The band played popular selections such as “Melody of Love,” “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling,” “Whispering,” “Beautiful Ohio,” “I Want a Girl,” “Let Me Call You Sweetheart,” and “I’m Looking Over a Four-Leaf Clover.”
Harry Weiss also served as Sheriff of Holmes County. When he was running for office, the band turned into his campaign committee. Since the family lived on a farm before he was elected, they wrote humorous skits as they milked the cows in the morning, and turned the lyrics of popular songs into humorous campaign slogans. Harry’s daughter, Evelyn, enjoyed composing tunes of her own and contributed to the election effort in this way, writing catchy jingles and teaching them to the band. On warm evenings, the family would pile themselves and their instruments into the back of a truck and drive around the county, singing their campaign songs. They were successful: Harry was elected in 1934 and served six consecutive terms as Sheriff of Holmes County. His political position increased the band’s popularity, and they would often travel to neighboring counties to perform.
A single night of playing for a community dance or a street carnival would provide anywhere from sixty cents to three dollars for each band member. New Year’s Eve was always a big night, and the band as a whole would earn as much as ten dollars. The group played nearly every weekend and sometimes through the week.
When the Weiss Orchestra played for square dances, Harry would act as “caller.” This was the person in the band who called out the sequence of steps for the dancers. Quite often, the dance steps were so familiar to the crowd that the Weiss family would let other callers who were there for the evening lead a few dances. In square dancing tradition, callers develop an individualized method of calling, which can include singing or speaking rhythmic patterns. Harry, his son, Darryl, and son-in-law, Murray would sometimes call pieces in three-part harmony.
As Sheriff, sometimes Harry Weiss would arrest prisoners who also happened to be musicians. If that was the case, the family would bring the prisoner along to their Saturday night venue and let him or her perform with the band. This “Mayberry-like” spirit was something that endeared the Holmes County public to the Weiss family; it also reflects what life was like in small-town America in the mid-1900s.
A third highly influential Holmes County musician was Warner E. “Pop” Farver. Like Harry Weiss, Pop Farver also formed a musical group with members of his family. In fact, these two bands existed at the same time and were equally esteemed by the citizens of Holmes County. Sometimes their members would sit in for each other if needed. Farver’s group consisted of his son, Wilfred, on banjo, guitar or accordion, his son, Earl (“Dutch”), on drums, bass, E-flat clarinet, or saxophone, and his wife, Nelly, on piano or accordion. Pop played the fiddle.
The Farver Orchestra also played for many social dances in Holmes County. Like the Weiss Orchestra, they were active into the 1960s. Unlike the Weiss family though, the Farvers frequently added a theatrical element to their playing. Earl, on string bass, would lie on the floor and rotate the instrument up around his head while playing, never missing a beat.
The Farvers are unique to the musical history of Holmes County because Pop Farver composed many original folk tunes and dances that the band would perform. The numerous dance forms he used to compose included polkas, waltzes, quadrilles, reels, schottisches, hornpipes, jigs, clogs, hoedowns, square-dances, two-steps and breakdowns. A self-taught performer and composer, Farver learned his craft by listening. He played first by ear then later taught himself to read music. He carefully organized his pieces into over fifty volumes with nearly fifty pieces to a volume. For each piece he compiled, he listed only the main melody. The music is similar to a lead sheet, though no accompaniment chords are listed.
Pop Farver kept several listening journals, in which he would listen to the radio and dictate popular folk tunes and love songs. He would then write his own arrangements of those pieces. He meticulously organized his listening journals, recording statistics such as the year he learned the tune, where he heard it, who wrote it or performed it or whether or not the tune originally had a name. For example, in “Radio Tunes, Vol. 2” under the 172nd tune he dictated, he typed:
“ ‘Black-Eyed Susie’ Arr. By W.E. Farver, as learned from Ridge Runners, on air WLS, Chicago, and Crockett Mountaineers, on air at WABC, New York City, (later Crockett Book) and from a record. 1929. Series Book 17—Radio Book II.”
Every transcribed piece has a similar label. It was through this careful listening that Farver learned the characteristics of the dance forms in which he began to compose.
The Farver Orchestra played many American tunes, some (but not all) dating back to the Revolutionary and Civil Wars. These tunes were still popular with the general populace at the time the Farvers performed them. A few examples include: “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain When She Comes,” “Liza Jane,” “When the Work’s All Done This Fall,” “Chinese Breakdown,” “Massa’s in De Cold, Cold Ground,” “The Battlecry of Freedom,” “Old Folks at Home,” and “When You and I Were Young, Maggie.” He listed these in separate volumes he titled “Copied Songs” or “From Sheet Music.”
The influence of the waltz on popular music is also witnessed in Pop Farver’s repertory. A dance in triple meter, the waltz became the most popular form of ballroom dance in the nineteenth century. It was accepted into many forms of musical composition and its influence is found in the theater, especially in operetta. Amongst Pop Farver’s collections of “Copied Songs,” he has a volume of waltzes that contains the famous “Beautiful Blue Danube” by Johann Strauss. In addition, the titles he gave some of his original waltzes reflect the form’s European origins, such as his “Venetian Waltz.”
Farver wrote many original waltzes, and this was a form for which his group was well-known. His waltzes were in binary or ternary form and he would frequently shift to the dominant or subdominant in the final section. He often titled his pieces after local, state or national places of interest, as is seen in the following example, a reprint of his piece, “Miami Valley Waltz.”
Modulation to the dominant or subdominant (as in this case) made for a smooth transition if the band decided to repeat the entire song, which frequently happened.
Another popular dance form Farver used was the breakdown (Example 4). The term “breakdown” can be a synonym for a “reel,” or refer (in general) to a high-spirited country dance. Farver’s “breakdown” was a form originating out of the lively song and dance numbers that concluded minstrel shows in the late nineteenth century. According to Pauline Norton, the concluding pieces in the minstrel show included “break” sections that consisted of short, two- or four-measure interludes of danced rhythmic patterns between the solo and verse and the chorus.
Farver’s One-String Breakdown exudes the energy and liveliness characteristic of this form. In this example, he modulates to the dominant in the second section.
In addition, Farver wrote many original polkas, to which he sometimes composed lyrics, like this “Polka-Time Polka.”
The polka is traditionally a couple-dance in 2/4 time. Like the waltz, it also became a popular ballroom dance of the nineteenth century. There is some dispute as to the origins of the polka, but its name suggests that it is of Czech origins. Certain German writers have claimed that it is no more than a schottische with a new name. However, traditionally a schottische is slower than a polka, although it has the same meter. (Farver wrote many schottisches as well, but the family band was better-known for its polkas.) The polka in Example 5 has all the characteristics of the traditional dance form. Farver’s compositions were equal in quality to the music the general public knew; in addition, his compositions used the same forms. Thus it is easy to see why Holmes County citizens were so fond of his family band.
All three of these musical groups helped to enrich the lives of the citizens of Holmes County in the twentieth century. Interestingly enough, they continue to do so to varying degrees. Though the Willie Green Band is no longer in existence, items relating to the band can be seen on display at the Holmes County Historical Society. The Weiss Family Orchestra, though now significantly smaller, contains members of the third and fourth generation. They play annually for a local nursing home’s Christmas party, (the Holmes County Home): a tradition begun in 1934 and upheld every year since.
Pop Farver’s music was recognized by the Holmes County Historical Society on an evening concert they entitled “ ‘Pop’ Farver Favorites.” For the program, four current Holmes County musical groups each learned three or four of Farver’s tunes. They then incorporated the tunes into their own musical styles and performed them for the public. One participating band was the String-A-Longs, a local bluegrass group led by Mike Gerber, a fiddle player who is also a third-generation member of the Weiss Orchestra. Other performers included Linda and Emilie Hershberger-Kirk, flute and guitar players, respectively, the Stockdale Family Band and Maidens III. Each of the groups presented Pop Farver’s tunes in their own musical language. Though none of the groups had the exact same instrumentation as the Farver Orchestra, the music was still well-received and the performances showed one way that Farver’s music could continue to evolve.
The musical life of Holmes County in the early to mid-1900s was represented by three main groups who played for local events and contributed to the social climate of the area. The Willie Green Band, a semi-professional band of over fifty members was extremely versatile in their programming and was able to cater to the entertainment desires of people not just in Holmes County, but throughout the state of Ohio. The Weiss Family Orchestra played locally, meeting the social needs of the small town community. Before Harry Weiss was elected sheriff, the band campaigned for him, endearing him to the people. After he was in office, the band’s position helped the community to view him as a “family man” and the Holmes County public enjoyed the Weiss’s musical entertainment for several years. Lastly, Warner “Pop” Farver and his Farver Family Orchestra were a staple at local gatherings. Writing in dance forms originating as nineteenth-century ballroom dances that crossed over into popular music, Pop Farver’s compositions enlivened social events. Indeed, the music of each of these groups, in some way or another, continues to enhance the lives of the people of Holmes County.
About the Author
A native of Millersburg, Dr. Amy Doerfler earned her Ph.D. in music theory and composition from Kent State University. She lives in Wooster with her husband, Matt, and their two children. She is active as a church musician and composer and is the great-granddaughter of Harry Weiss and granddaughter of Murray and Evelyn (Weiss) Gerber. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Special thanks to her uncle, Mike Gerber, for sharing the photographs from his personal collection.
No duplication of this article is permitted without approval from the author
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